CP&DR News Briefs January 24, 2023: Downtown S.F.; Mono Lake; Las Vegas High-Speed Rail; and More

Ella Morner-Ritt and Tatum Troutt on
Jan 24, 2023

Study: Downtown San Francisco Languishes; Central Valley Downtowns Boom
Downtown San Francisco has the slowest COVID-19 recovery of 61 cities in North America studied by the University of Toronto’s School of Cities think tank, reporting that activity levels are at only 31% compared to fall 2019. Using cell phone data as a measurement of activity in the area, a recent study determined Downtown San Francisco to be relatively empty. One of the causes of such a shift is believed to be the housing market pushing residents out of the Bay Area, those seeking cheaper housing. Another is the downtown area’s prevalence of jobs that are now worked remotely, composing 31% of the workforce in the area. Much of the area’s office buildings (65%) lie vacant. Officials are seeking to remedy the issue by proposing alternative land use and diversifying the area, but the city is facing economic barriers to changing the downtown office spaces to better suit the current in-person workforce — or even into new housing. In contrast, inland cities with relatively affordable housing like Bakersfield and Fresno, where activity has reached 125% and 121% of 2019 levels, respectively. They ranked second and third in the study, behind only Salt Lake City.

Environmental Group Seeks to Replenish Mono Lake 
The environmental nonprofit Mono Lake Committee has filed a request to the State Water Resources Control Board to suspend diversions of water from Mono Lake to Los Angeles. At the center of the group’s request is concern that the diversions of water, in addition to ongoing drought conditions, is causing the lake bottom to be exposed, making California gulls vulnerable to coyotes which can cross the dry beds. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has said that cutting this supply, which serves about 54,000 ratepayers, would cause higher water bills and force the city to buy water sources elsewhere, shifting the impact to other communities in drought. The State Board is reviewing the request with consideration of water supply needs, wildlife protections, air quality, and the interests of the Kutzadika’a Tribe and is set to respond in the upcoming weeks.

Las Vegas High-Speed Rail Releases EIR
Brightline West is making progress on its plan to connect Victorville to Las Vegas, releasing environmental documents for the $8 billion high-speed rail project and its 49-mile extension between Hesperia and Rancho Cucamonga. Brightline has also approved the purchase of land in Rancho Cucamonga, which will serve as the final California station and already connects to downtown Los Angeles' Union Station. Once the documents are approved, construction could start as soon as 2026, with service beginning in 2030. Experts suggest travelers could reach Las Vegas from Los Angeles in three and a half hours. Though Brightline plans to fund the project using federal and private money, the developer has not yet accounted for full funding.

Home Prices Change Buying Patterns in California
Expensive home prices and extreme mortgage rates are pushing many buyers to move to more affordable cities, including Sacramento and San Diego, according to recent data from Redfin. Researchers found that about one-quarter of homebuyers explored housing options in new metro areas, especially as one-third of those with jobs could work from home. Data also shows that many people are continuing to leave coastal job centers; San Francisco experienced the largest net outflow, shortly followed by Los Angeles. Sacramento reached the top of the list for net inflow of residents, with most homebuyers relocating from San Francisco. San Diego made fourth on the list, receiving many residents from Los Angeles. Despite these mass migrations, experts suggest that relocations may relax alongside the economy.

CP&DR Coverage: Study of Jobs-Housing Balance Wins National Award
The 2022 award for “Best Article” in the Journal of the American Planning Association went to “Jobs–Housing Balance Re-Re-Visited,” co-authored by two California-based researchers: Evelyn Blumenberg, professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Hannah King, a doctoral student at the Luskin School. Blumenberg and King analyze the relationship between cities’ housing affordability and “self-containment,” meaning the degree to which people both live and work within a given city. Troublingly for California, they found that, on average, higher housing prices correlate with less self-containment. CP&DR spoke with Blumenberg about the award-winning article and its implications for California housing policy.

Quick Hits & Updates

A Superior Court judge has cleared a deed-restriction on San Diego’s former Central Library, paving the way for the long-vacant building to be used as a temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Short-term plans include the provision of 26 beds in a shelter for the winter season, and long-term plans for permanent use of the site as a shelter with additional beds are still being considered.

The San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office released a report with suggestions for incentivizing the conversion of offices to housing. Suggestions included exempting conversions from environmental hearings, offering subsidies, and reducing affordability minimums and certain fees. Policymakers have demonstrated openness to the conversation but remain uncertain about the future of the office market.

A contract for the consulting firm London Moeder Advisors to consider the highest and best use of 324 acres of land at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego County is under consideration. The consultants plan to study the prospect of residential, retail, office, and mixed-use spaces across the three sites managed by the 22nd District Agricultural Association on behalf of the State of California.

The sale of 2,000-acres of Escondido hills officially goes to neighboring company Golden Door Spa, promising to protect the property and use it sustainably. The land was narrowly purchased after Newland Communities tried for nearly a decade to build a large housing development on the land, prompting concern from multiple environmental groups.

Negotiations are in progress in Chula Vista between the city, Bayview and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System for a new development. MountainWest Real Estate has plans to build a $900 million skyline, mixed-use development with a medical center, trolley line, affordable and luxury housing, and restaurants. MTS hopes for increased ridership once the project is completed, and keep ridership up while the development is under construction.

San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston accused Mayor London Breed of intentionally undermining efforts to transform an abandoned lot in the city into low-income housing by refusing to follow up on an agreement to buy the land. A spokesperson for the mayor responded by saying the process is competitive, and not as simple as Preston assumes.

After receiving petitions from three nonprofit organizations, the Biden administration announced on Jan. 10 that it is considering the Chinook salmon — native to California and Oregon — for a protected status as either endangered or threatened. Next steps include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s review of the information. The expected conclusion is due in August of this year.